In this article, we review progress in the development of high peak-power ultrafast lasers, and discuss in detail the design issues which determine the performance of these systems. Presently, lasers capable of generating terawatt peak powers with unprecedented short pulse duration can now be built on a single optical table in a small-scale laboratory, while large-scale lasers can generate peak power of over a petawatt. This progress is made possible by the use of the chirped-pulse amplification technique, combined with the use of broad-bandwidth laser materials such as Ti:sapphire, and the development of techniques for generating and propagating very short (10–30 fs) duration light pulses. We also briefly summarize some of the new scientific advances made possible by this technology, such as the generation of coherent femtosecond x-ray pulses, and the generation of MeV-energy electron beams and high-energy ions. © 1998 American Institute of Physics.